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Safety sparks prescribed burns

At Brooker Creek Preserve, planned burns will continue to clear brush and make nearby neighborhoods safer.

Smoke wafted into the air over Brooker Creek Preserve again last week, but this time it was on purpose: A fire crew was burning a 25-acre section of the preserve near the Ridgemoor community.

The prescribed burn Tuesday is part of Pinellas County's effort to lessen the danger of wildfires in the 8,500-acre preserve that borders Keystone in northwestern Hillsborough County. It burned away waxy palmetto bushes and other undergrowth that might otherwise fuel a wildfire. Planned fires move more slowly than wildfires and burn lower and cooler, leaving mature trees unharmed.

"We've been waiting to burn this for quite a few weeks," said preserve manager Craig Huegel. The crew members needed a rare wind from the west to blow the smoke away from homes, he said. They got it Tuesday.

The state Division of Forestry was set to do prep work Friday at three sites in the preserve near the Hillsborough County line, in preparation for more controlled burns the week of Aug. 23, said Mike Perry, an area supervisor.

A June wildfire within a quarter-mile of the Coventry Village at Ridgemoor subdivision underscored the threat wildfires can pose to homes in neighborhoods that abut the preserve. Huegel said at the time that more prescribed fires were needed to lessen the danger.

Another June fire in the Oldsmar section of the preserve burned for days, scorching some 400 acres. Fortunately, that fire burned away from any homes.

The preserve staff plans to burn more land during the six weeks remaining in the summer burning season. Summer and winter are the safest times for planned burning.

Tuesday's fire expands an already-burned area at the center of the preserve, Huegel said.

"We feel that if we have the middle area burned, at least we have kind of a safe area in the middle," lessening the chance that a huge fire could sweep the 8-mile north-south distance the preserve covers, he said.

After the June fires, Pinellas County officials also promised to create firebreaks around subdivisions that back up to the preserve. Many back yards in those neighborhoods are right next to thick forest, placing homes in danger from a wildfire.

Huegel said he expects work to begin within a month at Ridgemoor. Crews will carefully cut down trees to create a 15-foot clear-cut band next to yards. Beyond that, in another 50- to 100-foot band, undergrowth will be removed and the forest thinned.

_ Times staff writer Jackie Ripley contributed to this report.